As a senior non-commissioned officer in the United States Air Force, Airman-development is one of my highest, personal and professional, responsibilities. Ensuring my Airmen are trained, prepared and ready to fight is a matter of life and death. If I fail to motivate, inspire and arm them with the tools and resources they require to succeed, the mission will fail. This is why the study and understanding of leadership is developed within all Airmen from their earliest enlisted professional military education experiences. One of the first leadership models I studied was the Situational Leadership Model, developed by Ken Blanchard and Dr. Paul Hersey, which is based on W. J. Reddin’s 3-D management style theory during 1967 (Northouse, 2016, p. 93).
The study of this model officially began when I was promoted to staff sergeant in 2002 and enrolled in Airman Leadership School. The school is the first enlisted professional military education course young Airmen experience, and lasts about six weeks. There are other schools they attend at various milestones throughout their career, all of which are geared to develop them into the best Airmen possible. While the flow and delivery of the lesson principles has changed over the years, the principles have remained relatively as I remember them. The first block of instruction we encounter is the course foundation. It is within this instruction, within the first days of our entry into our first leadership education experience, that we learn about the Situational Leadership Theory, which is built into the chapter known as “Full Range Leadership Development,” (ALDLC, 2017, p. 138). It is here that the Air Force starts the leadership discussion on how a subordinate’s development level should impact a leader’s approach to the situation. The unfortunate reality is though, that the Air Force has to pack in a ton of content in that six-week period, thus restricting their discussion of Situational Leadership Theory to 263 words and the graphic depicting the model. My hope is that this theory isn’t lost under the weight of all the course content – because it is extremely applicable to the daily lives of Airmen.
One of the key reasons why it is so applicable, is because of it is prescriptive, not descriptive (Northouse, 2016, p. 99). It actually tells you how to lead within situations. This is great for new leaders because situations may be a bit overwhelming and they may not have a robust history full of experience to help guide them. How does this work? As Figure 5.1, taken from Northouse (2016, p. 95) explains, leaderships styles vary amid directive and supportive behaviors. Directive behaviors establish goals, set timelines, define roles, clarify responsibilities, and are often one-way (Northouse, 2016, p. 94). On the other hand, supportive behaviors are often two-way and help folks feel comfortable and show social and emotional support (Northouse, 2016, p. 94).
The degree of each behavior as it relates to the other determines the style of leadership, whether that be directing, coaching, supporting, or delegating. The appropriate style can then be utilized with the follower depending on where they are within the various levels of development. The word “with” is italicized for a very specific reason. As Blanchard Research and Training India LLP (2014) explain, these leadership styles are not something done to followers, but with them as partners [1:00]. This increases transparency and understanding within the relationship and aids in building trust.
One of the most intriguing elements of the situational approach is how the development levels have aligned with my personal experiences of Airman development. It’s important to note that there really is not any substantial research to back up how commitment varies along the situational leadership model, it happens to be one of the main criticisms of the theory itself (Northouse, 2016, p. 101). In any case, in my personal experience, the model reflects the reality I have come to understand over 20 years of service.
After an Airman graduates basic training, they progress onto a technical school. From there, they move to their first duty station, which is where we then take lead on their development. When they first arrive, they really don’t know their jobs well but they are incredibly excited and eager to be great Airmen. In the SLII model, they would fall under “D1,” or low competence and high commitment. At this point, we pretty much have to show and tell them exactly what to do, because they want to do it, they just don’t know how yet. After some time, the Airman begins to understand their jobs and what they really got themselves into. They start to indoctrinate into the military culture and awaken to the realities that surround them – and it is not always positive. Life in the military is really challenging. This oftentimes discourages them and they become disillusioned. They would now be considered in “D2” or low competence, low commitment. It is at this point the coaching style becomes really important. While we still need to set goals and explain the mission, we need to be more supportive on the socioemotional side of the house to help keep their energy up and build their understanding of why we live the way we live and why we do the things we do as a military.
As the Airman continues to develop over the years, their skills begin to sharpen but they may still not be fully indoctrinated into the culture. It has yet to become part of them. They are now “D3,” or high competence, variable commitment. It is here that we transition into the supportive style. We want to start empowering Airmen to accomplish their mission. As The Airman Handbook (2015) explains, “by allowing Airmen flexibility in how they implement the vision, the leader successfully allows others to take ownership of the vision and experience pride in achieving it,” (p. 249). With perseverance and care, Airmen will begin to understand the why behind the military lifestyle and their motivations will align with their confidence and ability to conduct the mission. They have made it to “D4,” or high competence, high commitment. Now, we can truly start to delegate the mission because they are fully competent and able to get the job done.
The one key element to situational leadership is that the approach isn’t determined by the development of the Airman holistically, but of the Airman’s capabilities within specific situations. The Penn State World Campus lesson commentary explained how a coach would treat their teams differently if they were playing a championship team versus a last place team, (p. 10). This is an important distinction. In my current organization, I have a non-commissioned officer who is exceptional at his primary duties, but believes his role in leadership is to direct his subordinates through e-mail alone. He takes no responsibility for development at all. So while I can delegate specific primary duties to him, I am having to continually coach him on how to best lead and manage his people. Being an Airman is much more than primary duties alone. We need to understand that the development of our Airmen is the single-most important responsibility we non-commissioned officers bear. It is our Airmen who accomplish the mission with our leadership and guidance. If we simply sit behind a computer and direct action without properly training them and guiding them along their career trajectory, there is simply no hope they’ll ever reach the highest levels of development. If they never reach them, then we will never sustain the force required to protect our nation. So it is in this way, that refining our ability to lead throughout all situations is a matter of national security.
Airman leadership distance learning course: Course foundation (9th ed.). (2017). Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, AL: Air University. Retrieved September 23, 2017 from https://goo.gl/n2CN9F
Blanchard Research and Training India LLP (Producer). (2014, September 11). Ken & Scott Blanchard – Situational leadership II [Video file]. Retrieved September 23, 2017 from https://goo.gl/kMVsjW
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: theory and practice (7th ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2017). PSYCH 485 Lesson 5: Style and situational approaches. Retrieved September 23, 2017 from https://goo.gl/SNZRqA
The Airman Handbook. (2015). Washington, D.C.: Department of the Air Force. Retrieved September 23, 2017 from https://goo.gl/qLZ6ec